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Colleges and universities can prioritize six areas to support student mental health and retention.

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Addressing student mental health is a top priority for higher education leaders, in part because rates of generalized anxiety and depression have continued to grow among young people. A recent study from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education found 36 percent of young adults (age 18 to 25) have anxiety and 29 percent have depression.

A March survey from Inside Higher Ed found two-thirds of college and university presidents are “very aware” of the state of their students’ mental health, but only a quarter of leaders strongly agree their institution has sufficient capacity to meet those needs.

The American Council on Education published a brief Oct. 30, offering guidance for institutional leaders to better support their campus community and their mental health.

Address Turnover in Counseling Centers

Inside Higher Ed’s survey of college presidents found the most common solutions to meeting students’ or employees’ mental health needs were increasing staffing for on-campus counseling services and budgets for mental health-related services, investing in telehealth services and expanding availability of mental health services.

However, ACE researchers believe investing in or restructuring counseling centers is not sufficient. “The student mental health crisis is not just a counseling center issue,” the report says. “It is a campus-wide issue, and higher education cannot hire its way out of it—there are not enough counselors and not enough funds.”

Counseling centers across the country saw increased caseloads and, during the COVID-19 pandemic, greater turnover among staff. Many counselors left higher education altogether, opting instead to pursue private practice or counseling in other sectors.

Cultivate Degree Pathways for Mental Health Professionals

The U.S. is witnessing a shortage of mental health providers, making it crucial for institutions to train and teach the next generation of therapists and clinicians.

Degree pathways and programs can encourage college students to consider careers in counseling services. Researchers emphasize the need for programs that motivate historically underserved minority groups to consider mental health careers and offer incentives including financial aid, scholarships and grants.

Typically, it takes a student around six to seven years to become a licensed mental health professional. Leaders should consider ways to reduce time to degree completion so students can begin practicing sooner.

Add to Policy Efforts That Support Mental Health

At the federal level, the Biden-Harris administration has prioritized mental health in policy, including allocating Higher Education Emergency Relief Funds dollars to address mental health needs, among other initiatives.

State system leaders and state officials are also investing in mental health solutions. Some examples include the University System of Georgia, which implemented teletherapy access across the system, and the state of Utah, which is creating a mobile crisis unit and developing a crisis-worker coursework and certification program.

“With all the attention that mental health is receiving at the federal and state levels, college and university leaders are well positioned to build upon these efforts and use them as examples of essential support as they work with their boards, system offices, and other policymakers to address student mental health,” the report says.

Track Effectiveness of Mental Health Practices

While many colleges and universities have implemented interventions to proactively support student mental health—encouraging belonging, resiliency, social connection and mentorship, among other goals—leaders should use data and research to gauge the effectiveness of these practices. This includes partnering with a third-party group.

In June, ACE published a literature review of strategies that target student mental health and their effectiveness. Other measurements including the Healthy Minds Study and the National College Health Assessment can create periodic measures to gauge general campus mental health and benchmark against national averages.

Data should be disaggregated by demographic groups to identify those who may be struggling and require additional support or need barriers to support removed.

Focus on Public Health– and Trauma-Informed Approaches

Rather than approaching mental health issues on campus as reactive and in a one-off approach, a public health–informed approach encourages strategies to promote a healthy lifestyle. Addressing all dimensions of a student’s well-being as well as prevention, intervention and postvention creates structures in place so a student is less likely to reach a crisis scenario.

Students are more likely to have encountered trauma prior to coming to college or have experienced collective trauma during the COVID-19 pandemic, making trauma-informed mental health care paramount.

A trauma-informed approach recognizes that behavioral symptoms are a result of coping with other adverse experiences. Campus stakeholders can engage in trauma-informed care by cultivating psychological safety, promoting collaboration and empowerment and practicing empathy.

Anticipate Student Desires for Mental Health Support

Teenagers, like young adults, are experiencing higher levels of anxiety and depression. A May survey from TimelyCare found 60 percent of current college students received mental health care during their K-12 years.

In turn, schools and districts have increased mental health resources to meet that need. “This increase in services and resources at the K-12 level means that college and university leaders need to be proactive about meeting the needs and expectations of incoming students and their parents,” according to the ACE report.

A spring 2023 Student Voice survey from Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse found 29 percent of students rank mental health support as the most important wellness service offered at their institution when they made the decision to enroll.

Campus leaders should prioritize four areas:

  1. Ensuring current and future mental health resources, supports and staff reflect an understanding of post-COVID-19-related wellness concerns.
  2. Begin outreach efforts with K-12 schools and counseling units to better understand future students’ needs and challenges.
  3. Educate the community on how and when to refer students to mental health resources on campus. A March study from YouGov on behalf of UnitedHealthcare found 51 percent of students did not seek help for a behavioral or mental health concern when they needed it. Students attributed high costs or a lack of awareness of the service as their primary barriers to care.
  4. Explore ways to make mental health resources an integral part of the college experience, particularly in the first year, rather than separate or siloed.

Do you have a wellness tip that might help others encourage student success? Tell us about it.

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